The Uberti Effect, or The Making of Me(aning)

Max from Where the Wild Things Are. Illustration by Maurice Sendak.
Max from Where the Wild Things Are. Illustration by Maurice Sendak.

At this year’s National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, which took place this past weekend, I was hit by the Uberti Effect and it took me a while to figure out what it had done to me.

Oliver Uberti was one of the plenary speakers. He is a visual artist and design editor for National Geographic magazine, and he is also gorgeous. On top of that, he is what Meredith Grey would probably term a little “dark and twisty,” having lost his father at fourteen, gone through some seemingly manic and depressive episodes and battled a relatively mild(-looking) form of alcoholism. I surmise all of this from his speech, which was deeply personal in what I can only describe as an insidious way–it made the audience swoon, had the Twitter feeds buzzing with questions about the status of his ring finger, and generally convinced me that there are some arts marketers out there in serious need of some sexy time. And it was also an incredibly beautiful and articulate portrait of a man who had spent his life trying to make a life through art. Make a life, not make a living.

I’ve written here earlier about the making of meaning, a concept I borrowed from the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who talks about how the life we lead as we move forward in time is dictated by the memories (and what he calls “future anticipated memories”) that fill our minds. For me, in an artistic context, that means that we are, in some small or large way, the sum of the artistic experiences that have stayed with us–the stickiest, the most captivating. When I close my eyes and dive backward into the Rolodex of my artistic lifecycle, I start, as Uberti did, as a child, dressed as Max from Where the Wild Things Are, unexpectedly surprising my parents as the star of my preschool play. They thought they were going to see me portray a shrub. I see myself laughing as hard as I ever have, my mother by my side, surprised and elated at the unexpected hilarity of a production of By Jeeves at the Goodspeed Opera House. I jump back and see hazy tap dancing, light glinting off shoes, at my very first Broadway show, 42nd Street, and then holding my parents’ hands and gasping at the Transformers-like power of the giant barricade in Les Miserables. My chest tightens as I remember how hard it was to play Joe in Angels in America opposite the man I loved, the one I eventually married but almost couldn’t come out for, and I realize that while Seth got me out the closet door and has kept me sane, Tony Kushner taught me how to be okay with all of me, and how to allow myself to love him.

For Oliver Uberti, his artistic lifecycle, his everyday lifecycle, is a mixture of whimsical graphics, honest/obsessive trending of his own foibles, and the conscious tracing of what he called his “iterative” artistic impulse backward from a map of everyone he had ever met, to a human figure made out of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to a fish made out of the pills it might have ingested, to a gridded collage of the train ticket stubs his dead father used to get on his commute. This probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to you if you weren’t there, but the plenary should be up on the NAMP site, and I encourage everyone to watch it.

Which gets me to the Uberti Effect. I started using the #ubertieffect hashtag on Twitter as a joke, in reference to the fact that shortly after his speech (which had at least five people in the Twittersphere publicly proclaiming they would be getting a National Geographic subscription) I got a fire-sale email solicitation from National Geographic. It was a half-reference to the magnetic pull I felt during his speech, but I understand now that, like the best comedy, it was a serious thing, too. Because his speech is sticking with me. I obsessed about it, a little. Many of us at the conference seemed to, running it over in our heads, laughing through the ur-crush we all seemed to be feeling.

But now I’m realizing that, while part of it definitely was his dreamy eyes and his perfect smile and his slightly-damaged “I will fix you” soul, what is sticking with me is actually the revelation that the artistic making of meaning, in my own life, has been equally the making of me, and that in the end those lingering moments, those strong, thin strings that connect my heart today to the heart of a boy swelling with pride as he bounded on stage in a gray fur suit with an eared hood and growled for my parents, are the manifestation of all the power that is tied up in the making and seeing of art.

This really isn’t just esoteric nostalgia on my part.  When I find myself caught in this sort of memory tornado, I’m reminding of something that Alan Brown, the chief researcher on our intrinsic impact work, has taken to saying lately: the true value of an artistic experience is that it pays out dividends — it’s an investment, and the return is every moment for the rest of your life that you catch on something and are suddenly reminded of some part, large or small, from that experience.

My favorite poem is “Postscript” by Seamus Heaney. It is ostensibly a recommendation to a traveler to stop on a road trip and watch some swans, but it has always seemed to me to be equally about the consuming of art, ethereal, stunning, confusing, and capable of transforming your whole self. It ends with these five lines:

Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

Often, we don’t choose to analyze our life in general, let alone the artistic experiences large and small that filter through it. And in a way, I can’t believe I have found so much seriousness and contemplation in Oliver Uberti’s plenary. I was pretty sure my main takeaway, as much as I enjoyed it, was going to be Alli Houseworth’s tweet that “apparently plenary is my type.” But setting aside the sort of courage it takes to bare that kind of stuff in a plenary in front of a bunch of strangers (which led to some awkward, semi-starstruck Q&A), Uberti’s ability to illustrate the wayfinding power of art, the fact that it points where you want to go even when you don’t know where that is, that it nudges you this way and that as you make yourself, that it blinds you with it’s simplicity and comedic beauty while teaching you a little something profound–well, all that says to me that maybe being a victim of the Uberti Effect isn’t such a silly thing after all.

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